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A Life Less Ordinary

Day Trips around Santa Fe, NM – Los Alamos

The evening Mark and I arrived at our current house sit in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the owner pointed at a blotch on the mountain side to the northwest. As a cluster of lights started to come on in the distance, he said, with importance in his voice, “That is the infamous site of Los Alamos.” The generation growing up in the 60s might raise an eyebrow of recognition right now – my parents did, all the way in Belgium, when I told them about it – but I gave him a blank stare. Mark nodded his head. The man looked at me and poked, “You know, where they built the atomic bombs that ended the war.” I knew about that world and history-altering event, of course, but still had never heard of Los Alamos. We had to check out what the fuss was all about.

The day after Mark and I did our hot hikes in Bandelier National Monument, we woke up to a beautiful morning and had our Sunday breakfast in the camper. I was feeling better, but we decided on taking it easy that day. The downhill drive to Los Alamos town was short and the parking lot in front of the visitor center empty.

Where are all the other tourists?

A few sites are scattered around the heart of the sleepy town. We walked by all of them, reading the historic signs and the brochure we picked up at the visitor center. We were surprised by the time range of the historic artifacts (from the ancestral pueblo site of the 1200s to the statue of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves, erected in 2011) in this small area and by the lack of visitors. Ashley Pond was another pristine sight in this well-taken care of town. It looked very different from the 1940s, when all the buildings around it were in use for the Manhattan Project.

We swung by the visitor center of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. This addition to the National Park Service was established very recently, in November 2015. Because of that, the contamination of many sites (radioactivity) and the fact that there is still top-secret stuff going on, the only things a visitor can learn about the nuclear bomb building, the importance of Oppenheimer and how the project came into existence (and why this site was picked for it) is through a very interesting video and displays on the wall.

The rangers gave a little spiel when we set foot in the building and were happy to answer our questions. Except for the top-secret stuff. Their (and our) hope is that over time, many of the important and still existing buildings of the Manhattan Project will be opened up to the public. They already have a brochure with photos and info about future sites that are yet inaccessible. The rangers are excited about these big plans and about turning quiet Los Alamos into a booming tourist destination.

Future sites of the Park?

Another interesting tidbit is that this town has the highest concentration of PhD holders and is the second-most affluent city in the United States. The engineering success of America’s nuclear inventions lead to the creation of the massive Los Alamos National Laboratory. Almost all the inhabitants of Los Alamos work or have worked in this laboratory. When approaching town through the hills, you pass many Laboratory sites that are off-limits and spread out for safety reasons. You also have to pass a security checkpoint and safety zone. For sure, there must be a lot of top-secret stuff going on!

Los Alamos National Laboratory Checkpoint

In the afternoon, Mark and I had a quick look around in the free Bradbury Science Museum. Some exhibitions revealed more of the town’s intriguing past, with historic footage and life-size replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the devices that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and left lots of horror in their wake. Most of it, however, appeared to be one big advertisement for the importance of the National Laboratory. No wonder it was free! On the drive back to our current home in Santa Fe, we passed a different section of Bandelier NM, and decided to hike the Tsankawi trail, which I reported on in a previous blog. Full circle and the beginning of a new work week.

Frugal tips:

  • Entrance to Manhattan Project National Historical Park – and the Bradbury Science Museum – is free. There is plenty of free parking everywhere.
  • Mark and I brought our own lunch and ate in our camper, but Ashley Pond is a pretty place for a picnic as well. The only establishment we saw open on Sunday was Subway. The ranger mentioned that, for Los Alamos to become a tourist destination, the town needs more and better hotels, restaurants and bars.

Ashley Pond

  • There are other museums around, charging small fees.

Had you ever heard of Los Alamos and/or the Manhattan Project?

26 Comments

  1. Hi Liesbet,
    I’ve definitely gone well beyond hearing of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. I’m actually a bit of a geek about the place and the project – reading everything I can find, watching every movie….
    My interest began many years ago when I read one of my favourite books of all time – Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis. My interest is in the workings of the group of men and women involved in the project, doing something huge, working around the clock, usually without even knowing what the project was. I’m fascinated by the concept of challenge – who takes up a challenge, under what conditions, what’s required for successful achievement of a challenge – that sort of thing.
    I was able to feed my interest even further when I was teaching a class of gifted students and we made a study of the Manhattan Project for several months. When I actually got to New Mexico a few years later, I visited Los Alamos on my second day in the state. The Visitors Centre was unsupervised when I went so I was free to roam all of the exhibits and read everything, which I loved. I was there on a weekday in September and I remember that it wasn’t terribly busy, but there were a few tourists on the streets. There was a great little cafe where I had lunch; it was quite busy. I too stopped in at the Bradbury Science Museum and I too was underwhelmed.
    I didn’t know the stats about affluence and the number of Ph.D’s but it makes perfect sense given the National Laboratory.
    Thanks for the photos, Liesbet, and for this little trip down memory lane.

    • Karen, I remember you saying you were in Los Alamos, but I had no idea as to the extend of your interest in the Manhattan Project. It is fascinating in so many ways! And what a coincidence that your last blog is about creative genius as well. When I learned about those stats, I was not surprised either, based on what Los Alamos is “built” on. Thank you for sharing your relationship and familiarity with the project.

  2. Heavens! A simple yes from me will suffice. But then, I’m ‘of an age’. 🙂 🙂

  3. OK, when I hear “Los Alamos” I think of The Alamo and Daniel Boone. I’ve probably got that mixed up too! And who knew the Manhatten Project wasn’t based out of New York? I’d also have voted for NY and San Francisco for the most affluent and Ph.D heavy places. I learned a lot today…and how fun to have lunch in your home in the parking lot 🙂

    • You know, when I first heard about Los Alamos here, from the home owner, all I could think about was The Alamo in San Antonio as well! Must be the generation gap. 🙂 I believe the Manhattan Project actually originated in Manhattan but then moved here (and parts of it to Washington State as well), so you actually got that right! 🙂 We love eating and sleeping in our camper… Even if it is in a parking lot, which we have done often – the eating and the sleeping. 🙂

  4. I was aware of both Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project but, other than what I learned in school (which wasn’t much), my knowledge wasn’t very deep. After reading Karen’s response, though, I may have to read a bit more to understand the true scope of the project.

    • It is quite fascinating, Janis. I should read up about it a bit more as well, since our visit was short and pretty much on the surface. I hope they open up some of those buildings by the time we come back one day.

  5. I think Los Alamos would be a really interesting place to visit. I think it’s great that they’re preserving historic sites like this. I was really surprised to learn that it’s such an affluent area and has so many PhDs.

  6. Hi, Liesbet – I too was aware of ‘Los Almos’ and ‘The Manhattan Project,” but your post and ensuing comments have inspired me to learn even more. I love following your adventures and discoveries.

  7. I have never been there but I love your photos.

  8. It will be interesting ot see if tourism does come to be at Los Alamos.I don’t think I have been anywhere where there a re top secret locations that are off limits. Just as well because just the words make me want to try to catch a glimpse. Sounds like a very interesting and economical outing.

    • I know what you feel, Sue. You are about as curious and – maybe – as cheeky as me. 🙂 I do hope they open some of those top secret sites of the past. As for the current one, it is understandable that they are off-limits… 🙂

  9. Well Liesbet, your blog post on Los Alamos and the Manhatten Project initiated a long and interesting discussion at our house this evening. My husband who is very well read, knows a lot of interesting details about it. My son, when he was in university, wrote a research paper on uranium. And I know bits and pieces about that history. Thanks for writing on such an interesting topic.

    Jude

    • That is so great, Jude, that I encouraged such a discussion. By the reads of it, your husband and son know so much more about these topics. I hope I didn’t state wrong information! There is a lot to learn and discover about the project!

  10. Wow, this was so informative, Liesbet! I had a vague recollection of Los Alamos and the Manhattan project, but hadn’t thought much about it. Thanks for sharing, hope this site can bring in more tourists!

    • More tourism and a better understanding of this part of history would be beneficial and fantastic, Terri. Discovering new places and parts of history while moving from home to home has been quite rewarding. Unfortunately, like all the other parts/topics/ interests in my life, there is only so much time to learn about each destination and topic.

  11. I’ve definitely heard of The Manhattan Project. If I were that close, I probably would have checked it out too, but celebrating that sort of “achievement” isn’t my thing.

    • I agree about the “celebration” remark. I didn’t get the feeling anyone does, at this time, anyway. The era brings mixed feelings with it. I’m sure that was different at the end of the war. Although, I did find this interesting tidbit recently: “Oppenheimer’s initial jubilation over the destruction of Hiroshima quickly turned to despair as the significance of what he and the scientists had achieved hit home. The mood at Los Alamos darkened perceptibly following news of Nagasaki and reports of massive destruction. Oppenheimer and others at least comforted themselves with the belief that the bomb had brought a rapid end to the war and avoided a costly invasion of the Japanese homeland.”

  12. Wow, fascinating Liesbet! So much history in that state, that I really must get to! And yes, where were the other tourists? 🙂

    • One day, when the political situation “settles down”, you will get to New Mexico, Debby. I’m sure of it. But, you better plan for a lot of time in this fascinating state! 🙂

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